Texas Senate Bill 8 is the Fugitive Abortion Act of 2021

Section 7 – And be it further enacted, That any person who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct, hinder, or prevent such claimant, his agent or attorney, or any person or persons lawfully assisting him, her, or them, from arresting such a fugitive from service or labor, either with or without process as aforesaid, or shall rescue, or attempt to rescue, such fugitive from service or labor, from the custody of such claimant, his or her agent or attorney, or other person or persons lawfully assisting as aforesaid, when so arrested, pursuant to the authority herein given and declared; or shall aid, abet, or assist such person so owing service or labor as aforesaid, directly or indirectly, to escape from such claimant, his agent or attorney, or other person or persons legally authorized as aforesaid; or shall harbor or conceal such fugitive, so as to prevent the discovery and arrest of such person, after notice or knowledge of the fact that such person was a fugitive from service or labor as aforesaid, shall, for either of said offences, be subject to a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars, and imprisonment not exceeding six months, by indictment and conviction before the District Court of the United States for the district in which such offence may have been committed, or before the proper court of criminal jurisdiction, if committed within any one of the organized Territories of the United States; and shall moreover forfeit and pay, by way of civil damages to the party injured by such illegal conduct, the sum of one thousand dollars for each fugitive so lost as aforesaid, to be recovered by action of debt, in any of the District or Territorial Courts aforesaid, within whose jurisdiction the said offence may have been committed.

That’s Section 7 of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This Act of Congress allowed states and territories of the U.S. to create commissioners to hunt down black Americans who escaped slavery and return them to their enslavers. If an enslaved person was able to reach a state that had legally banned slavery, their enslaved status was not overturned. Instead, the people of that state were forced, by Section 7, to void their own antislavery laws by helping the slave commissioners in whatever way those commissioners demanded: help them to find enslaved people, take them into custody, guard them while they awaited return to their enslaver, and turn them over to the enslaver. Preventing a slave commissioner from enforcing slavery in a free state was illegal. Helping an enslaved person hide or escape was illegal. Knowing about people who were helping or hiding enslaved people was illegal, because it was a form of “hindering” the slave commissioner. The penalty for those who hindered slavery, directly or indirectly, was a $1,000 fine (a fortune in the mid-1800s), up to six months in prison, and another $1,000 fine to pay back the enslaver the “civil damages” they experienced as “the party injured by such illegal conduct”. Since very few Americans would have $1,000 to pay the first fine, the second $1,000 would be collected “by action of debt” – that is, seizure of property and/or any other asset the person might possess.

We posted about the FSA four years ago, in September 2017 in “The 2017 Fugitive Slave Act”; that time, we were comparing it to laws making it criminal to help immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally, and turning police officers into “immigrant-catchers” just like the slave commissioners were “slave-catchers”. When you are rewarded for doing something, you will find ways to do it. When you are punished for doing something, you’ll stop. That’s how these acts work.

This September, in Part 1 of a short series, we’re comparing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 to the 2021 Texas Senate Bill 8. Why? Because this Bill, now law, makes it illegal for a woman to get an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy in the state of Texas, and therefore illegal for anyone to provide an abortion or, crucially, to help a woman to get an abortion in Texas after six weeks in any way. Abortion is realistically banned by this procedure, not just or primarily because not all women know that they are pregnant at just six weeks, but because

–all women are forced to make two appointments with an abortion provider, one to get an ultrasound so they can be shown their “baby” and told that they will be “murdering” it if they get an abortion, and one to get another ultrasound before the procedure;

–women under age 18 are forced to get written and signed parental approval to get an abortion; and

–only women with strong support systems, money, and flexible employers who allow time off are able to travel out of Texas to a state that does provide abortions after six weeks.

With the passage of this bill into law, it’s not just illegal to perform an abortion; it’s also illegal to drive a woman out of state to get one elsewhere, to pay for one, or, potentially, to tell a woman where she can get an abortion after six weeks. The law is purposefully vague, using the phrase “conduct that aids or abets the performance or inducement of an abortion” to cover just about anything.

Let’s do a close reading. We took the text of this Bill from the website Texas Legislature Online, which is part of the official State of Texas government website. We’re not reproducing the entire text, but letting you know which sections we’re looking at.

AN ACT

relating to abortion, including abortions after detection of an unborn child’s heartbeat; authorizing a private civil right of action.

BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF TEXAS: SECTION 1.  This Act shall be known as the Texas Heartbeat Act.

–The use of the word “child” is already a red flag for subjectivity. A fetus at 6 weeks is a fetus, not a “child”. Anti-choice advocates have long used the words “baby” or “child” to describe something that could one day be a baby or child, but currently is not. From the moment an egg is fertilized by sperm, it’s a “baby”, as Section 171.201 (5) says: “‘Pregnancy’ means the human female reproductive condition that: (A)  begins with fertilization”.

Calling the Bill the “Texas Heartbeat Act” technically refers to the fact that a fetal heartbeat is detected between 3-6 weeks after fertilization. But even the language of this Bill in Section 171.201 (1) reveals what a technicality this is: “‘Fetal heartbeat’ means cardiac activity or the steady and repetitive rhythmic contraction of the fetal heart within the gestational sac.” Is this what anti-choice advocates want you to think of when you hear “Texas Heartbeat Act”? No; they want you to think of a valentine-shaped heart that represents a baby with feelings and emotions.

Basically, calling a 6-week old fetus a “child” or “baby” is like calling someone you enslave a “laborer” or “worker”, as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 did, consistently calling people who escaped slavery “fugitives from labor.”

Sec. 171.207.  LIMITATIONS ON PUBLIC ENFORCEMENT. (a)  Notwithstanding Section 171.005 or any other law, the requirements of this subchapter shall be enforced exclusively through the private civil actions described in Section 171.208.  No enforcement of this subchapter, and no enforcement of Chapters 19 and 22, Penal Code, in response to violations of this subchapter, may be taken or threatened by this state, a political subdivision, a district or county attorney, or an executive or administrative officer or employee of this state or a political subdivision against any person, except as provided in Section 171.208.       

–Here the Bill leads early with its key component: it’s not being enforced by the State government. No enforcement of the Bill may be taken or threatened by anyone representing the state. Here’s the first part of that following section they refer to:

Sec. 171.208.  CIVIL LIABILITY FOR VIOLATION OR AIDING OR ABETTING VIOLATION. (a)  Any person, other than an officer or employee of a state or local governmental entity in this state, may bring a civil action against any person who:

–Texas never claimed that this Bill is constitutional. The evil genius of it is that it doesn’t have to be constitutional if the state is not carrying it out. No one working for the state government of Texas will be asked to prevent a woman from getting an abortion, or take anyone to court for having an abortion or helping a woman to get one. The state’s hands are off. It’s private citizens who will do this work. Yes, they’re authorized by state law, but this means that anyone who wants to challenge this law will have to go after every individual citizen who acts on it–which could be thousands or tens of thousands of people. No one can sue the State of Texas over it.

Pro-choice advocates will certainly take the first private citizen who acts on this law to court, and hope to work that individual case up to the Supreme Court, just like Brown v. Board of Education or Plessy v. Ferguson. But in the meantime, unknown numbers of people will continue to act on it–far greater numbers than work in Texas state government. 25 million people live in Texas. Far fewer work in state government.

This is an authorization of vigilantism, as we will see. Let’s continue that last section:

Sec. 171.208.  CIVIL LIABILITY FOR VIOLATION OR AIDING OR ABETTING VIOLATION. (a)  Any person, other than an officer or employee of a state or local governmental entity in this state, may bring a civil action against any person who:

(1)  performs or induces an abortion in violation of this subchapter;

(2)  knowingly engages in conduct that aids or abets the performance or inducement of an abortion, including paying for or reimbursing the costs of an abortion through insurance or otherwise, if the abortion is performed or induced in violation of this subchapter, regardless of whether the person knew or should have known that the abortion would be performed or induced in violation of this subchapter;

(1) is clear: no abortions can be provided after six weeks. (2) is that horribly vague “conduct that aids or abets the performance” of an abortion that could cover anything. The only specific they give is that insurance companies that pay for abortion can be sued. The vanishingly small number of insurance companies that ever cover abortion will soon, one fears, be reduced to zero.

You may be asking at this point, where is the burden of proof? How can anyone prove that someone “aided or abetted” in an abortion in any way? It’s just hearsay–I can go to court and say “I know that Person A drove Person B to get an abortion” or, worse, “I know that Person A encouraged Person B to get an abortion,” or even “Person A knew that when Person B left the house that day they were going to drive out of state to get an abortion and didn’t try to stop them.” There’s no end to the dystopian nightmare that is made possible here.

This law also makes someone guilty until proven innocent, which is the opposite of the legal principle the U.S. is founded on. If Person A is sued, they are forced to appear in court and argue that they are innocent. The Bill refers to someone in this situation as the “defendant” and the person who sued them as “the claimant”, and never was the word “claim” so accurately and awfully used. No one making a claim against someone will be thrown out of court, and every groundless case will have to be heard–and the “defendant” will pay all the legal fees if they are found guilty, and the state will pay all the legal fees if they are not, as we see here:

[3] (b)  If a claimant prevails in an action brought under this section, the court shall award:

(1)  injunctive relief sufficient to prevent the defendant from violating this subchapter or engaging in acts that aid or abet violations of this subchapter;

(2)  statutory damages in an amount of not less than $10,000 for each abortion that the defendant performed or induced in violation of this subchapter, and for each abortion performed or induced in violation of this subchapter that the defendant aided or abetted; and

(3)  costs and attorney’s fees.

So if Person X takes Person A to court and wins, Person A is first made incapable of repeating their crime (“injunctive relief” is a court order that demands that someone stop doing something), and Person X, the Claimant, gets “not less than” $10,000 for each abortion performed or “aided and abetted” by Person A, and the court will pay for Person X’s court costs and attorney’s fees. Person X, of course, pays their own costs and fees.

Remember how the Fugitive Slave Act guaranteed $1,000 to anyone who turned in someone hindering a slave commissioner? And put the hinderer in jail, and made them pay another $1,000 so they couldn’t do it again (injunctive relief)? Just add a zero to the Texas law and we’ve got the same situation, except that in 1850 the person found guilty paid the reward to the person who had turned them in. Now, it’s all taxpayers in Texas. Everyone, regardless of their stance on abortion, is helping to prosecute people who provide or “aid and abet” abortion.

(d)  Notwithstanding Chapter 16, Civil Practice and Remedies Code, or any other law, a person may bring an action under this section not later than the fourth anniversary of the date the cause of action accrues.

–There’s a statute of limitations of four years on suing someone for providing, aiding or abetting abortion. We’re surprised it’s that short. Why fear that memory or hearsay or “claims” will be harder to prove with passage of time? Concerns about proof don’t seem to trouble anyone who wrote or passed this Bill.

Sec. 171.212.  SEVERABILITY.      

(c)  The legislature further declares that it would have enacted this chapter, and each provision, section, subsection, sentence, clause, phrase, or word, and all constitutional applications of this chapter, irrespective of the fact that any provision, section, subsection, sentence, clause, phrase, or word, or applications of this chapter, were to be declared unconstitutional or to represent an undue burden.

–This is surprisingly frank. The Texas state legislature would have passed last word of this bill, “irrespective of the fact” that any part of it “were to be declared unconstitutional or to represent an undue burden.”

Part of this lack of concern for constitutional law comes from their deviant removal of enforcement from the state to the private citizen–again, it doesn’t matter if the law is unconstitutional if the state is not carrying it out (even though the state is, of course, carrying it out by allowing cases to be heard and punishing the courts if they don’t hear the cases).

But the larger part is that this is meant to be read as a brave, moral stand against the immorality of abortion. Even if the whole world tells us we’re wrong, the lawmakers say, we know that we’re right, and we stand by it. This wrapping oneself in morality is very selective in the U.S., and seems mostly to occur when right-wing politicians go against something liberal politicians support.

It’s also almost always about life-or-death stands that are fairly meaningless: support our troops by funding weapons and wars, because they’re fighting for our freedom… but don’t give military personnel a living wage, safety from rape and/or abuse based on sexuality, good life and health insurance, easy access to quality mental or physical health care, or good housing.

Here, it’s don’t “kill” an unborn “child” because that’s “murder”… but once that child is born, do nothing to fund early childhood education, school breakfasts, mother and infant health care, affordable and safe day care, after-school programs, or anything else that will help that child live a good life. This is not being “pro-life” but “pro-birth”.

People who ban abortion are almost always “pro-birth”. They want huge governmental involvement, investment, and protection for stopping abortion, and zero of the above for helping all children thrive, regardless of race, religion, first language, income, sex, sexuality, etc. They usually follow pro-birth laws with measures designed to prevent exactly that kind of level playing field for the children they insist be born, from segregated schools to gay “conversion camps” (aka torture centers).

There’s no room for this in a democratic nation. The history of the United States is one of incrementally increasing democracy, of getting closer to liberty and justice for all. Making a Christian position against abortion the law for all Texans, and, one day, for all Americans, is a violation of our founding principle of separation of church and state. Un-American oppression and disregard for the Constitution, vigilantism and sexism, have no place in our nation. Religious belief is not protected by the Constitution, as we’ve noted before:

…What the First Amendment does regarding religion is: first, it forbids our federal legislature from making any laws creating an official state religion; second, it forbids our federal legislature from preventing people from worshipping as they see fit. That’s what “free exercise” means–how you worship. Whether you go to a church, synagogue, mosque, or have a prayer room in your home, you are protected. If you wear a head covering like a yarmulke or turban as a form of worship, you are protected.

The First Amendment is all about physical forms of religious worship. It comes from a time when people would burn Catholic churches or refuse to let Jewish Americans build synagogues. It stops this, and stops schools from forbidding students to wear religious clothing.

It does not protect religion itself, or as we usually put it, religious belief. It does not protect anyone’s right to believe certain things. If one’s religion prohibits homosexuality or birth control, that is a belief, not a form of worship. Belief is not protected because belief is so amorphous. One could claim any crazy notion as a religious belief and demand that it be protected. We could say that our religion says women shouldn’t ride public transportation, or men should not be allowed to use public showers, or cats can’t be kept as pets, and we would have to be accommodated.

The Founders were wise enough not to get into religious belief. They just made a safe space for public and private physical worship.

Laws like the ones passed in Texas, and getting closer to passage in many other states, define one specific version of Christianity as “religious belief”, and seek to make it the state (and national) religion. That’s not what we’re supposed to do in America.

Next time, we go into the details of how the law is playing out in Texas… and beyond.

Nebraska update, site upgrade, and a new home for our posts on censorship and banning teaching about racism

Hey, it’s a positive update for once! In fact, there are a couple of them to share.

You’re seeing the most obvious one – our new site format. We haven’t updated the site since we created it… IN 2008, and while we value history and being old-school, we felt the time had come. We hope you like it.

We’ve also updated our Pages, most notably to include a one-stop shop for all of our continuing coverage of the anti-democratic attempts to censor K-12 and college education in this country by forbidding people to teach about racism or any other “problematic” features of our past and our present in America.

We hope you enjoy both of these upgrades, and that they help you locate the information you need more easily. Maybe we won’t wait another 13 years to make some changes on the old HP.

Meanwhile, we celebrate a positive update on Nebraska, the most recent state we posted about making attempts to ban instruction about racism and other “divisive” facts: the University of Nebraska Board of Regents voted against regent Jim Pillen’s resolution that critical race theory should not be “imposed” on academic curriculum or staff training.

It was close at 5-3, and undoubtedly another attempt will be made after those who did vote against it are worked over by the press and by lobbyists. Nebraska governor Pete Ricketts “strongly urged” the regents to support the resolution, so this battle is not over–both Ricketts and Pillen have “vowed to continue fighting on the issue”. Pillen plans to run for governor, a race that doesn’t seem to be starting in good faith:

Despite the vote, Pillen expressed optimism that Nebraskans have a better understanding of the issue now and that there will be accountability if critical race theory is imposed on students in the future. When asked, he did not provide any examples of such impositions in the past.

Pillen added that “critical race theory should not be forced on our students and staff as an unquestionable fact. They should be free to debate and dissent from critical race theory without fear of silencing, retribution, or being labeled. They should also be free to avoid the concept of critical race theory altogether without penalty, if that’s what they choose.”

This type of unbearable double-speak is so unbearably common now: people should be free to debate and criticize this theory freely, and also free to choose not to do so, and that’s why I want censorship to step in to take away that freedom to debate and freedom to choose.

This censorship as freedom, censorship as freedom of choice, is only gaining momentum.

But it’s a moment of triumph for Truth in its never-ending battle against Myth, and we have to celebrate it. Here’s what NU president Ted Carter said:

Speaking before the vote, NU President Ted Carter told the regents to hold him accountable if there are problems with critical race theory at the university in the future.

“If something actually is being imposed on our students and it’s wrong, we’ll fix it,” he said.

But Carter emphasized that critical race theory is not required for graduation, and he defended the integrity of the faculty and the ability of the students to deal with the subject appropriately.

“Our students are not children,” he said. “Our students are not at threat of having this discussion. They’re there to think for themselves.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education (no public website to link you to) makes the important note that students who are not white “spoke about the importance of discussing topics of race and racism in the classroom”. It’s maddening that the people who are most impacted by racism past and present are so rarely given the chance to speak to the people making the rules about what they can learn, and how free their speech is.

Stay with us in this new format and this new fight for real history and real democracy.

Why did Americans fight in wars?

There are many correct answers to this question, from the noble to the mundane to the misguided. But we feel confident claiming that making it hard for Americans to vote was never a stated purpose for going to war in the United States.

Texas state representative Jack Enfinger does not agree. We’ll get to him in a moment. For now, the background. We were listening to a story on the radio about Texas Senate Bill 1, which is titled thusly:

An act relating to election integrity and security, including by

preventing fraud in the conduct of elections in this state;

increasing criminal penalties; creating criminal offenses;

providing civil penalties.

It is one of the many state bills that have been or are about to be passed to stop non-white people from voting in the name of correcting election fraud. It’s not a leap to make this statement, as the decisions of the Supreme Court has been openly stating since 2013 and its Shelby County decision that times have changed, non-white Americans no longer suffer from institutional discrimination, and there is no need to keep the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

We posted about this at the time – see The Supreme Court strikes down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Section 4 of the VRA sets out the criteria for determining when a state/local jurisdiction is violating fair elections and voting. As we said back then,

the Court was reviewing two things: whether racial minorities still face voting intimidation and restriction nearly 50 years after the 1965 Act; and whether it was unfair to keep singling out Southern states for closer inspection than other states. The answer to both these questions was “no”.  The current system, says the majority opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts, is “based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day. Congress—if it is to divide the states—must identify those jurisdictions to be singled out on a basis that makes sense in light of current condition. It cannot simply rely on the past.”

That is, we can’t say that since Southern states prevented black citizens from voting during Reconstruction, in the 1870s, those states should still be identified as requiring federal oversight. The problem with this logic is that one does not have to go back to the 1870s to find voter repression in the Southern states singled out (Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, and Virginia). These states were preventing black people from voting in the 1920s, 1950s, 1970s, and today. The history of intimidation, arson, and murder used to prevent black Americans from voting in those states is unbroken from 1865 to 2013.

The proof of this claim is in the hundreds of proposed changes to state voting laws in the Southern states currently pending at the U.S. Department of Justice. It’s in the statements made yesterday by Republican leaders in those states that they will take “immediate action” to not only introduce new laws restricting voting rights, but to revive and pass old laws that were rejected by the Justice Department as infringing on the right to vote.

“After the high court announced its momentous ruling Tuesday, officials in Texas and Mississippi pledged to immediately implement laws requiring voters to show photo identification before getting a ballot,” reports the Houston Chronicle. “North Carolina Republicans promised they would quickly try to adopt a similar law. Florida now appears free to set its early voting hours however Gov. Rick Scott and the GOP Legislature please. And Georgia’s most populous county likely will use county commission districts that Republican state legislators drew over the objections of local Democrats. …Laughlin McDonald, who heads the American Civil Liberties Union’s voting rights office, said he agrees that pending submissions to the Justice Department are now moot. It’s less clear what happens to scores of laws that the feds have already denied since the 2006 reauthorization.”

The Southern Republicans in question say that the ruling is a validation of their states’ move away from racial discrimination, an acknowledgement that times have changed. In one way they are right: over the past 20 years, Southern politicians widened the scope of their ambition to attempt to prevent not just black Americans from voting, but the poor, elderly, and Latino as well—all groups they perceive as voting for Democratic party. They have moved away from purely racial discrimination to a much broader discrimination.

Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, said, “Voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that. The question is whether the Act’s extraordinary measures, including its disparate treatment of the States, continue to satisfy constitutional requirements. As we put it a short time ago, ‘the Act imposes current burdens and must be justified by current needs.’”

There are many things to question here:

If, as the Court claims, voter discrimination still exists, but southern states are no longer the single source of that voter discrimination, then why didn’t the Court expand the VRA to include northern states, rather than kill the VRA?

If the states that wanted the VRA overturned have representatives publicly stating that they would immediately introduce laws that restricted voting, how can the Court state that overturning the VRA will not make voter discrimination worse?

If the VRA is outdated because it’s not current, then what just happened with the Court’s decision in Brnovich v Democratic National Committee?

We won’t go into all of the details of this decision here – you can find an objective, very detailed explanation here at BallotPedia. What we will focus on is the decision’s selection of 1982 as the standard for judging state voting laws: here’s a clear reference from the decision itself:

(B) The degree to which a voting rule departs from what was standard practice when §2 was amended in 1982 is a relevant consideration. The burdens associated with the rules in effect at that time are useful in gauging whether the burdens imposed by a challenged rule are sufficient to prevent voting from being equally “open” or furnishing an equal “opportunity” to vote in the sense meant by §2.

If the problem in 2013 was that an Act from 1965, and thus 48 years old, was too outdated to be relevant (a dubious claim), then how is 1982 okay in 2021? That was 38 years ago, and will only get older.

This discrepancy is just a token for the overall violation of voting rights that the Brnovich decision represents.

Now to circle back to our question about why Americans fought in wars. When we were listening to the radio, we heard many Texas residents saying their piece for and against the legislation. Then we heard state rep Jack Enfinger, of San Antonio, say this:

“This thing about voter suppression is a major false claim—a joke.”

Jack Enfinger, a San Antonio Republican, testified that Texas offers multiple ways to vote, including two weeks of early voting.

“How much more does Texas have to bend over backwards for… the voters? Voting is not supposed to be easy. That’s what our men died for.”

The disdain and incomprehension in Enfinger’s voice when he said “the voters” was remarkable. He makes it very clear that “voters” are a subspecies of American that somehow cannot be equated with “citizens.”

But it’s his claim that American men [sic] fought to prevent Americans from being able to vote easily is so alarming and cray that it takes your breath away. What can it mean? Because the bill in Texas makes it harder for non-white people to vote, the only possible answer seems to be that he’s saying white American men fought and died in foreign wars to make sure that only white American men could ever vote here at home. Americans fought and died in WWII to keep America white.

This is, by now, mainstream, often-heard white fascist content in America (we never thought we’d be saying this in our lifetimes). It hardly causes a stir anymore–since 2020, we’ve become used to fascism in the mainstream. This comment will win Enfinger more Republican support, and otherwise disappear.

But the Supreme Court is on his side, and that’s a problem that’s larger than Texas, and won’t go away. The Shelby decision and the Brnovich decision and the decisions that are coming soon don’t use Enfinger’s direct language, but they are of a piece, and they shore him up and support him.

We seem to end every post the same way lately – do what you can on your local level, vote, protest, get involved in local politics. The minority of people who are passionately devoted to destroying democracy in America are active every day in these ways. SIgn a petition, go to a speech by your representative or a candidate. America has a long tradition of making this relatively easy to do… for now.

Jen Psaki on the proposals to penalize teaching the history of racism

You know the drill: another week, another installment in our unhappy, once short, now long series on examining the Biden Administration’s January 20, 2021 Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government, which you can find here on the official White House site.

On March 18 we wrote about the Iowa state legislature working to incorporate the anti-justice language and intent of the Trump Executive Order 13950 of September 22, 2020 (Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping), which we spilled so much ink on late last year. The University of Iowa is being pressured by the state legislature to end diversity education for students and staff.

Then on March 23 we posted about the Idaho state legislature attempting to do the same. Then, just over a month later came the terrible update: they did. On April 29 the Idaho House approved legislation aimed at preventing public and charter schools and universities from teaching critical race theory, which examines the ways in which race and racism influence American politics, culture and the law.

On May 14, we posted about New Hampshire, whose House Bill HB544–“An Act relative to the propagation of divisive concepts”–is yet another move to make teaching Americans about racism illegal.

The surprise? We don’t have a new state to report on this week. And we’re not going to bend your ear forever about this attack on democracy.

Instead, a very short video of Jen Psaki, press secretary for the Biden Administration, dealing with it more concisely and definitively than we ever could. If the link doesn’t work, go to YouTube and type in “Psaki on Proposal to Penalize Teaching History of Racism.”

Enjoy hearing from someone else this week who is as devoted to Truth v. Myth as we are!

New Hampshire bill would ban diversity training

These grim updates have become part of the routine here at the HP–yet another state is pushing a bill through its legislature to stop the monstrous threat to democracy that is… democracy.

If you’re wondering why we will once again give you links to all the previous posts on this topic in this post, it’s to show the growing number of dominos falling over a very short time.

So here we go: this thread began with our short series examining the Biden Administration’s January 20, 2021 Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government, which you can find here on the official White House site.

On March 18 we wrote about the Iowa state legislature working to incorporate the anti-justice language and intent of the Trump Executive Order 13950 of September 22, 2020 (Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping), which we spilled so much ink on late last year. The University of Iowa is being pressured by the state legislature to end diversity education for students and staff.

Then on March 23 we posted about the Idaho state legislature attempting to do the same. Then, just over a month later came the terrible update: they did. On April 29 the Idaho House approved legislation aimed at preventing public and charter schools and universities from teaching critical race theory, which examines the ways in which race and racism influence American politics, culture and the law.

And now? New Hampshire, whose House Bill HB544–“An Act relative to the propagation of divisive concepts”–is yet another move to make teaching Americans about racism illegal. As the Chronicle of Higher Education describes it, HB544

…would ban teaching or training students to “adopt or believe” a list of “divisive concepts,” including that the state or the nation is fundamentally racist or sexist. One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Keith Ammon, a Republican, told fellow lawmakers in February that it is meant to take on “critical race theory.” He likened diversity and inclusion trainers to “snake-oil salesmen.” They propose a cure to disease, he said, but the cure is “making it worse.”

Ammon’s reasoning is emblematic. Republican lawmakers across the country have declared war on an academic concept, and — according to scholars of the theory — reduced a dynamic school of thought to a poorly drawn caricature. They’ve introduced similar bills in at least a dozen states meant to curb what they see as the pernicious influence of critical race theory in public institutions.

Republican lawmakers have long been frustrated with higher ed’s liberal tilt and its supposed quashing of conservative viewpoints.

Now, they’re taking a new tack: Instead of resolutions and bills to protect the speech of visitors on the campus quad, the recent wave of legislation often steps into the classroom to restrict what can be taught. It’s part of a larger battle playing out in state houses, schools, and the media between dueling versions of American history. Over the past few months, lawmakers like Ammon have wielded references to the decades-old theory as they argue with their colleagues about whether racism persists and if it exists at all outside of the hearts and minds of individuals.

We’ve said so much about this in the posts linked above. Teaching people that racism exists, now, today, not just safely in the past where it’s no one’s fault today (sort of–white people still benefit from that past racism), is not, in itself, racism. It’s not a lie. Only a party that has removed its own members from seats of power for refusing to support the lie that the 2020 election was fraudulent–that Biden’s win was a lie–would dare to say that teaching Americans about racism should be made illegal because it’s just not (or is no longer) true.

This isn’t about belief. This is now about law. Teachers in the states that pass these laws will be criminally liable if they teach about racism in an accurate way. They could potentially face jail time. It would be illegal to teach our history.

This is just another version of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which we describe here:

We learn about the FSA when we learn about the Compromise of 1850, of which it was a part. To pacify proslavery forces who were angry that California was allowed to enter the Union as a free state, the Compromise allowed slaveholding and trading to continue in Washington, DC, and upheld the “rights” of slaveholders to their “property”—enslaved people—throughout the Union.

This meant that if you lived in, say, Wisconsin, and had voted to pass personal liberty laws in your state outlawing slavery, those laws were overturned. Slavery would be upheld in “free” states, because slaveholders were allowed to enter free states and reclaim escaped people, and even pick up black citizens who had never been enslaved—the word of the slaveholder was accepted over the word of the black citizen and even the white citizens of the state. Whites were forced by the law to help slave-catchers, they were fined and jailed for failing to do so, or for helping an escapee, and whites were forced to live with the rescinding of the personal liberty laws they had voted for on a state level. Thus, slavery was basically enforced in every state of the Union, and outrage over this was expressed by many Northerners who had previously been publicly neutral about slavery.

If the Fugitive Slave Act was all about enslaved blacks, asked Northerners, why was it fining, jailing, and threatening free whites? Why did it seem to focus just as much on attacking the liberties of northern white citizens as it did on preventing black Americans from gaining their liberty? It was just another example of the slave power perverting democracy and threatening free government.

Americans who want to teach our actual history are now coerced and threatened with jail time into teaching a fake history that is about validating white Americans, locating all racism in those whites who enslaved black Americans and created institutional racism after slavery was ended (i.e., white Americans in the past) and thus relegating racism to the past. In this way, they are forced to support racism.

The problem with this that we haven’t yet addressed in our many posts is that American history is already usually taught so badly, leaving out so much of the reality of slavery and racism in our nation, that laws like this are almost unnecessary. Here’s an article that lays this out quite well, from the New Hampshire Business Review. But these laws ensure that our history teaching and textbooks will get worse and worse, thus allowing racism today and in the future to flourish in a medium of complete denial of the fact that racism has been a primary cause of a great deal of legislation, settlement and housing patterns, industrial growth, wealth creation, and other “race-neutral” economic and socio-political actions that are taught in American history courses.

Teaching all of these without mentioning racism will create a history of America that is so cartoonish it will effectively kill American history. Which is, we believe, the goal.

We do believe as well that not all Americans will accept this, and that the possibility of fighting it is real. But to have a bloody war created for us over race, once again, once again… it’s infuriating and the harm it causes from the level of the individual soul to the fate of the planet is breathtaking.

If you live in a state considering such legislation, take action. If your state has not yet introduced such legislation, investigate to make sure no one is planning to. If you’re a teacher, support your colleagues who stand against this legislation. As the NHBR article says, to be better than this we have to be brave.

Trump is not gone – silence = death

We’re back once again, unable to move on from our short series examining the Biden Administration’s January 20, 2021 Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government, which you can find here on the official White House site.

On March 18–just 5 days ago–we wrote about the Iowa state legislature working to incorporate the anti-justice language and intent of the Trump Executive Order 13950 of September 22, 2020 (Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping), which we spilled so much ink on late last year. The University of Iowa is being pressured by the state legislature to end diversity education for students and staff.

Now, we find the same effort being taken up by the Idaho state legislature. Coincidentally, the Chronicle of Higher Education article from which this quote is taken was published on March 18:

Boise State University officials say their suspension of diversity classes this week was motivated only by reports of an unspecified incident, but the action comes amid a pointed attack by Republican state lawmakers on the university’s efforts to educate students about racism.

The university on Tuesday abruptly suspended 52 sections of a diversity and ethics course, citing concerns that “a student or students” were made to feel “humiliated and degraded” in class “for their beliefs and values.” No official report has been filed, and officials said they have only heard about the incidents second- and third-hand, but the university is investigating.

The Idaho State Senate made its decision-making process very explicit:

The course suspensions at Boise State came the same week that the Idaho State Senate passed a higher-education budget that cut $409,000 from Boise State’s appropriation — the amount the university said it spent on social-justice programs — and shifted the money to Lewis-Clark State College, the Idaho Statesman reported on Wednesday. Some Republican lawmakers had wanted to cut much more in order to send a clear signal to the university that they were against its efforts to educate students about racism and social justice.

…it’s hard to imagine an American legislator publicly saying “I am against educating students about racism and social justice” and still considering themselves a) a good American and b) supported by our founding principles.

“We don’t want funds expended for courses, programs, services, or trainings that confer support for extremist ideologies, such as those tied to social justice, racism, Marxism, socialism or communism,” Rep. Priscilla Giddings said earlier this month, according to Boise State Public Radio. In 2019, 28 House Republicans signed a letter to Marlene Tromp, who was then the new president of Boise State, urging her not to support initiatives intended to promote diversity at Boise State, Idaho Ed News reported.

It’s almost impossible to parse this ridiculous statement, which says that social justice is an ideology, and that social justice and racism are the same thing. Social justice and racism do represent opposite extremes of humanity, from good to evil, but that is their only connection. To place social justice (a good thing) in a list with racism (a bad thing), and then Marxism, socialism, and communism (as practiced so far by humans, bad things), is a bold statement of hatred. We hope that since she feels this way, Rep. Giddings does not say the Pledge of Allegiance, which ends, of course, by pledging allegiance to a nation that stands for “liberty and justice for all”.

Apparently, the Republicans in the state legislator took the opp presented by a single student saying they felt uncomfortable in the Boise State diversity and equity course to shut everything down.

One might wonder why the feelings of a student quoted in the article as having enjoyed the course did not carry equal weight. But one already knows.

Trump is “gone”, not gone. Take a look at your own state’s legislation and see what they may be doing. Check the institutions of higher ed that you care about. The time to act is now, while there’s still some room to breathe.

Wondering what “silence = death” means? Check out Neutrality isn’t Justice, silence = death

Truth v. Myth: Biden Order on equity needs our help

It’s part the last of our short series examining the Biden Administration’s January 20, 2021 Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government, which you can find here on the official White House site. We left off in part 2 looking at the end of Section 4 and its directions for identifying methods to assess equity.

Sec. 5 Conducting an Equity Assessment in Federal Agencies tasks the head of each agency, or someone they deputize, to consult with OMB to carry out a review of their agency that identifies:

(a)  Potential barriers that underserved communities and individuals may face to enrollment in and access to benefits and services in Federal programs; 

(b) Potential barriers that underserved communities and individuals may face in taking advantage of agency procurement and contracting opportunities;

(c) Whether new policies, regulations, or guidance documents may be necessary to advance equity in agency actions and programs; and

(d) The operational status and level of institutional resources available to offices or divisions within the agency that are responsible for advancing civil rights or whose mandates specifically include serving underrepresented or disadvantaged communities.

–What we like about these four categories of inquiry is that they incorporate correction to the very Order they’re part of. A and B address the potential–and likely–problem that benefits may exist but the people who need them will be presented with constant obstacles when they try to access them. C accepts that the existing policies and guidance may prove to be incomplete in advancing equity, and new ones will be needed. D accepts that agencies may likely need more resources–money and people–to carry out the Order. This is not a set-it-and-forget-it situation in which passing an Order solves all problems. It’s not a magic wand, and it needs to be the beginning of a large collaborative effort. That means there will be changes and it will be expensive and there will have to be real enforcement. All of this should inspire people to do this good work, rather than turn them off, because it’s a healthy and helpful acknowledgement of the real world in which change takes place.

Section 9 – Establishing an Equitable Data Working Group – is a call to gather more data on our population, as “Many Federal datasets are not disaggregated by race, ethnicity, gender, disability, income, veteran status, or other key demographic variables.  This lack of data has cascading effects and impedes efforts to measure and advance equity.  A first step to promoting equity in Government action is to gather the data necessary to inform that effort.” The Working Group is established, and will go about the difficult business of gathering data from people who have every right to feel threatened by federal requests for their personal information and scared to provide it lest they be fired, deported, or harassed. This small section is very important, and calls for the most thoughtful work.

Thankfully, Section 10 – Revocation – revokes the Trump Executive Order 13950 of September 22, 2020 (Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping), which we spilled so much ink on late last year.

This is a good start, and we welcome it. But we fear for it, too, as America continues to go through ever more violent pendulum swings right to left with every presidential election. The specter of the EO on equity that the next Republican president might sign is menacing. The next four years must be spent moving the nation back to its established central base, where it is assumed the the United States is meant to provide liberty and justice to all. That founding principle was openly and explicitly rejected by the Trump administration, and too many Americans resonated with that trashing. Let’s let this Order be a step toward getting back where we belong. Do your part by asking what’s being done at your workplace to provide the data we need to broadcast the fact that “hardworking American” is not code for “white”, and to pull back at that pendulum before it swings away from us.

Truth v. Myth: Biden Order defines racism as racist! (and anti-racism as anti-racist)

Hello and welcome to part 2 of our series examining the Biden Administration’s January 20, 2021 Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government, which you can find here on the official White House site. We left off in part 1 looking at the end of Section 1 and its framing of equality of opportunity in positive economic terms.

“Sec. 2 Definitions” establishes the same for “equity” and “underserved communities”:

Sec. 2.  Definitions.  For purposes of this order:  (a)  The term “equity” means the consistent and systematic fair, just, and impartial treatment of all individuals, including individuals who belong to underserved communities that have been denied such treatment, such as Black, Latino, and Indigenous and Native American persons, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and other persons of color; members of religious minorities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) persons; persons with disabilities; persons who live in rural areas; and persons otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality.

(b)  The term “underserved communities” refers to populations sharing a particular characteristic, as well as geographic communities, that have been systematically denied a full opportunity to participate in aspects of economic, social, and civic life, as exemplified by the list in the preceding definition of “equity.”

We know that this Order is specifically addressing racial inequity, so we will not complain that being female is omitted here from categories of Americans who have been denied equality of opportunity. It’s good to have an Order specifically focused on race. But we do expect the Administration can do two things at once and also address sexual discrimination and sexism in America as well, and as soon as possible.

The main difference here between the Biden Order and the Trump Order is that the Trump version had 9 separate definitions of the term “divisive concepts”, all of which stated that anti-racism and anti-sexism training were, in themselves, divisive concepts based on lies and, of course, anti-white racism. So we’re on better footing already here with the Biden Order, as it is short and common-sensical and acknowledges reality.

Sec. 3 Role of the Domestic Policy Council states that this DPC will “coordinate efforts to embed equity principles, policies, and approaches across the Federal government. This will include efforts to remove systemic barriers to and provide equal access to opportunities and benefits, identify communities the Federal Government has underserved, and develop policies designed to advance equity for those communities.” Again, a 180 from the Trump Order which focused on prosecuting government departments that continued diversity training that attempted to address “divisive concepts.”

Sec. 4.  Identifying Methods to Assess Equity says that the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) will work with federal agencies to “[assess] whether agency policies and actions create or exacerbate barriers to full and equal participation by all eligible individuals. The study should aim to identify the best methods, consistent with applicable law, to assist agencies in assessing equity with respect to race, ethnicity, religion, income, geography, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability. … Within 6 months of the date of this order, the Director of OMB shall deliver a report to the President describing the best practices identified by the study and, as appropriate, recommending approaches to expand use of those methods across the Federal Government.”

So far so good; we can say that by 2021 it’s a little late to say you’ll begin to assess “whether” there are barriers to equity and then “recommend approaches” to dismantling them… but if this really happens by August, we’ll be happy to wait one last time.

Next time: defining obstacles to equity

Truth v. Myth: Biden Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity takes on Trump EO on same(?)

As 2020 drew to a close, we did a Truth v. Myth close-reading series on the Trump Administration’s September 22, 2020 Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping.

Today, as 2021 rolls into its second month, we bookend that series with this: an examination of the Biden Administration’s January 20, 2021 Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government, which you can find here on the official White House site.

As you’ll recall, the Trump Order was a naked attempt to misrepresent anti-racist diversity training in government and education as a “destructive ideology”. As we say in part 2 of our previous series:

“This destructive ideology is grounded in misrepresentations of our country’s history and its role in the world. Although presented as new and revolutionary, they resurrect the discredited notions of the nineteenth century’s apologists for slavery who, like President Lincoln’s rival Stephen A. Douglas, maintained that our government “was made on the white basis” “by white men, for the benefit of white men.” Our Founding documents rejected these racialized views of America, which were soundly defeated on the blood-stained battlefields of the Civil War. Yet they are now being repackaged and sold as cutting-edge insights. They are designed to divide us and to prevent us from uniting as one people in pursuit of one common destiny for our great country.”

–The duplicity here makes one want to cry out. Here is the pretzel: acknowledging racism at work in America today is actually racist. To bring up race is, somehow, to have a “racialized view” of America, and, beyond that, to bring up racism is to be an apologist for slavery… Fighting racism and working for civil rights is also not racist. To claim that fighting racism forces people to think about race, and only race, and therefore is racist, can only be the product of a deep stupidity or a deep evil. It’s very hard to say which would be worse.

It’s unclear how much traction this Order got, since it was issued in September 2020 and now a new Administration has begun, so it’s not clear how much damage has to be undone. But let’s take a look through the new Biden Order and see what it holds, starting with Section 1: Policy.

By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, it is hereby ordered: 

Section 1. Policy. Equal opportunity is the bedrock of American democracy, and our diversity is one of our country’s greatest strengths.  But for too many, the American Dream remains out of reach.  Entrenched disparities in our laws and public policies, and in our public and private institutions, have often denied that equal opportunity to individuals and communities.  Our country faces converging economic, health, and climate crises that have exposed and exacerbated inequities, while a historic movement for justice has highlighted the unbearable human costs of systemic racism.  Our Nation deserves an ambitious whole-of-government equity agenda that matches the scale of the opportunities and challenges that we face.

–Just about every new attempt at guaranteeing civil rights in America begins with an encouraging statement about how much we’ve already done, how peerless we are as a nation in working to offer liberty and justice to all. Sometimes this can have the chilling effect of making the new call for action seem like an extra, a nice-to-have rather than a need-to-have in a country where fundamental justice is already established, and now we just want to tie up a few minor loose ends.

This Order, then, is refreshing in its limiting that encouragement to a single short sentence and then moving on to acknowledge in plain language that we are not doing well enough, we are not in a good place and just need a slight push to an even better place. We have slipped backward in America over the past 40 years, as the backlash against the civil and human rights wins of the 1950s-70s began with Reagan and relentlessly gained momentum wit the help of both Bush presidencies, the Tea Party during the Obama presidency, and the Trump presidency. Those who call liberty and justice for all treason led an attack on our Capitol on January 6, 2021, and their supporters and members in Congress sit safely, in no fear of censure from their colleagues, refusing to impeach President Donald Trump for inciting a treasonous coup. We’re in a very dangerous place and that has not come out of the blue. Complacency about how strong our democracy is allowed too many Americans to treat right-wing extremism as normal and powerless, even as its basic structures fell apart.

A case in point is the very Executive Order we’re reviewing here. The Executive Branch–the presidency–does not legislate in our three-branch system. The Legislature–Congress–writes and passes laws. The Judiciary–the courts–test whether those laws are constitutional, and can overturn them if not. The president does not have the power to write laws. They do have the power to write Executive Orders: directives describing how laws should be enforced. They are part of the president’s discretionary power. No EO can violate the Constitution, and all EOs are subject to Judiciary review to make sure that they don’t. Basically, once a law is passed, an EO can determine how, and how seriously, it will be enforced.

Most presidents use EOs are low-key and uncontroversial: formalities (to inaugurate Presidential Commissions or Presidential Advisory Councils, for instance); to designate emergencies (declaring a city or region a disaster area after a hurricane or flood), to award an honorary medal (the Purple Heart) or to create task forces (for ecosystem restoration or terrorism prevention).

Other EOs are major: Trump’s “Muslim ban” of January 2107 prevented citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the U.S. until it was overturned as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in June 2018.

EOs remain in force until they’re canceled by the president who issued them, or their successor; they’re found to be unconstitutional by the courts; or they hit their expiration date (if they have one). And therein lies the problem we are experiencing, and the challenge to our democracy. During the Obama presidency, the use of EOs fundamentally changed for the worse.

Faced with a Republican-led Congress that openly stated its intention to block any legislation the Democrats introduced, President Obama began writing Executive Orders to get around Congress. A good example is his EO to grant limited amnesty to illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as minors (the “Dreamers”). Congress would not pass immigration law that protected this population, so Obama went around Congress. While the end goal was just and good, this use of the EO was dangerous because it set protections in place that were then quickly and easily overturned by the next president. It also allowed Congress to abdicate its role of writing laws. This erases the check between Legislature and Executive, and allows Congress to remain impotent and harmful. Whether an EO promotes justice or obstructs it, it cannot and should not substitute for legislation.

When it does, we go into a deadly pendulum-swing, where a Democratic president signs Orders that are then revoked by a Republican president, who then signs new Orders that are revoked by a Democratic president, and so on. Real American lives are impacted, as protections come and go. And Congress lies stagnant and dormant, refusing to take action. Americans begin to look to the president for laws. This is not how our system works. It turns the president into a monarch or a dictator.

So while we applaud this Biden EO so far, the fact that the first thing the new president did was sign 19 EOs, many of them deliberately overturning Trump EOs, is unsettling. The one we’re examining now is a case in point: this Biden EO on Advancing Racial Equity seems clearly positioned to overturn the Trump EO on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping. The nation cannot be whipsawed back and forth between policies for decades without our very democratic system deteriorating under the strain and the neglect.

With all that said, we’re going to keep close-reading this EO, but in the back of our minds we know how fleeting it may turn out to be, and how negative and anti-democratic an EO it may provoke from the next Republican president in 4 or 8 years.

It is therefore the policy of my Administration that the Federal Government should pursue a comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality.  Affirmatively advancing equity, civil rights, racial justice, and equal opportunity is the responsibility of the whole of our Government.  Because advancing equity requires a systematic approach to embedding fairness in decision-making processes, executive departments and agencies (agencies) must recognize and work to redress inequities in their policies and programs that serve as barriers to equal opportunity.

–This is a welcome return to logic, history, and reality after the double-speak of the Trump EO. Here, the obvious is acknowledged: America has allowed systemic, institutional racism to create inequality of opportunity for those who are not white. This honest assessment was rejected by the Trump EO as a “malign ideology [now] migrating from the fringes of American society and threatens to infect core institutions of our country. Instructors and materials teaching that men and members of certain races, as well as our most venerable institutions, are inherently sexist and racist are appearing in workplace diversity trainings across the country, even in components of the Federal Government and among Federal contractors.” As we said then, we say now, that this is more of the same idea that acknowledging race and racism is racist, that we should all be allowed to be “color-blind”. This phrase, as used in this Order, represents a false assumption, which is that America, or at least most Americans, are not racist and do not ever made judgments about people based on their race. Therefore, being told to think about race is ruining this paradise by introducing race-based thinking, and therefore, racism.

Again, it’s a visceral relief to read the Biden EO, but one tempered by the knowledge that this is just an Executive Order, not a law passed by our Congress, and therefore it’s a frail and temporary bulwark against injustice.

By advancing equity across the Federal Government, we can create opportunities for the improvement of communities that have been historically underserved, which benefits everyone.  For example, an analysis shows that closing racial gaps in wages, housing credit, lending opportunities, and access to higher education would amount to an additional $5 trillion in gross domestic product in the American economy over the next 5 years.  The Federal Government’s goal in advancing equity is to provide everyone with the opportunity to reach their full potential.  Consistent with these aims, each agency must assess whether, and to what extent, its programs and policies perpetuate systemic barriers to opportunities and benefits for people of color and other underserved groups.  Such assessments will better equip agencies to develop policies and programs that deliver resources and benefits equitably to all.

–It’s depressing that the idea that helping the poor helps everyone is so often rejected by Americans today, while the idea that helping the rich helps everyone is so eagerly embraced. Here, the Biden EO frames equality of opportunity in positive economic terms to help reach those who believe that rich Americans should fund economic growth (through “trickle-down” or “job creation”) out of their largess, which requires the rich to become even richer, to even astronomical levels. Instead, all Americans could help each other, which redistributes not wealth, but the opportunity to gain wealth, to all.

How can advancing racial equity make this happen? We’ll find out next time.

Next time: Section 2 – definitions

The Great American Experiment goes on

Way back in November 2008 we posted “The Great American Experiment”, an essay describing the election of Barack Obama as president as an instance of the triumph of our ongoing experiment in creating true democracy in the United States and the world.

We re-run it today, as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris take their oaths of office, with a few updates for 2021.

______

America is an experiment. From at least the time of its first white settlement, and likely for centuries before that, America has been a place where people came to experiment with doing things differently. It’s been a place to gamble, to see if you could be one of the lucky ones who could buy land, support yourself, marry and create a new life and a new family future in a stable, new land. You gambled on the weather, politics, your own skills, and your own ability to commit to the experiment of living in America, and being an American.

During the 18th century, the experiment deepened, as Americans began to speculate that they could form the first democratic nation in modern times. Intense experimentation went on from the 1760s to 1787, as Americans adapted and invented forms of government fit for the scope of their needs, the gaping hole of their inexperience, and the high and intense expectations for their future.

On and on went the experiment: could we create a strong and stable centralized government? Could we grow without destabilizing? Could we solve the problem of slavery? Could we truly create a melting pot in which to forge Americans out of peoples of all nations? Could we give women the vote? Could we accept Jewish people as true Americans? Could we desegregate? Could we assure civil rights regardless of sexuality?

Every time Americans experienced failure, or had the rug pulled out from under them, whether by natural disaster or human disaster (like stock market crashes, Depressions, war, and injustice), they had to stop and think: is it worth it? Do our high expectations just set us up for disappointment? Is it really possible to have a strong, wealthy, powerful, modern country that is also just, fair, free, and equal?

Our momentum from the Founding onward propelled us to believe that it is possible. We took pride in attempting the unlikely, in dedicating ourselves to making the seemingly impossible possible. We did it because we knew our history began when we committed ourselves to the biggest experiment humans can attempt: liberty and justice for all.

America’s story is one of constantly tackling the big—the biggest—problems, ahead of everyone else, with very little to guide us but those Founding principles that nag at our conscience. And each time we’ve made progress, extending civil rights to more and more people, it’s been because that old spirit of taking a gamble, of performing the ultimate experiment, took over and led us to the right decision.

As we think today about what divides Americans, we think it boils down to the fact that some Americans no longer want to experiment. They want to close the lab down. We’ve gone far enough into the unknown, making it known, they say; now let’s stop—let’s even go backward. We were wrong to conduct some of our experiments in liberty, and that’s the source of all our problems. Gay people shouldn’t be treated equally. Black people shouldn’t run the country. Women shouldn’t hold high office. Muslims shouldn’t be granted habeas corpus. Democracy itself is weak and corrupt–we need a military and religious dictatorship to undo every advance in civil rights and the pursuit of happiness, because somehow freedom and happiness are destroying America.

Whenever one of those Americans talks about the problem with our country today, they talk about how we should be like we once were, back when white people who defined marriage as one man-one woman and were Protestant veterans built this nation. They feel they are losing their birthright, their legacy.

But those Americans are wrong. What their ancestors really were was scientists. Experimenters. Radicals who always considered the impossible possible. A people with near-supernatural qualities of optimism and defiance and willingness to go into the unknown and make it their home, to make the amazing the norm. They defied the status quo. That’s how they built America.

Americans who want to end the experiment are few, but boisterous. They clamor at the national microphone. But Americans who know that there is no America without the experiment will keep at it, and they will persevere. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are such Americans, and their election is proof that the lab is still open, and that America in general will always be at the drawing board, expanding its concept of liberty and justice and equality until we finally fulfill the founding principles that created this nation so long ago.